Tito knew that the Germans would give him no respite. In his headquarters on the Piva Plateau, he made final preparation for the German attack — which he knew was coming. Vast reinforcements had been added to the German army, for this time they were determined to crush the growing Partisan strength. The German force had been increased to seven Nazi divisions; five Italian divisions were added to that, and with them Ustachi collaborationists. And this time, Mikhailovich had promised full support to the Germans.
The British military mission was astounded at Tito's optimism in the face of the vast array of strength. Here was a force as large as the Eighth Army faced in Africa — larger, perhaps — some two hundred thousand enemy troops in all. How did Tito propose to face them with half that number, with no air support and no armor?
Tito had prepared his tactics. To the north of him, in Bosnia, was a strong Partisan army. He would smash through the Germans, draw them out, join with the Bosnian Partisans, swing around and strike them again and again, where they least expected it.
On May 15, 1943, the combined German-Italian attack was launched from all directions. It started with intense aerial bombardment, the usual waves of dive bombers, supplemented this time with hourly high-level bombing. This the Partisans had to take; they were still woefully short of anti-aircraft equipment and entirely without an air force. Then German artillery was brought up and shells by the thousand were pumped into the Partisan positions.
The Piva Plateau, however, was well situated for defense — high ground surrounded with canyons and bluff cliffs. For twelve days, the Partisans fought off German attacks, leaving the rocky defiles full of German dead. Then, in accord with his plan, Tito began the retreat. In a black night, his army crept through a narrow canyon. He might have got out of Piva without a fight, had not a Mikhailovich unit got wind of the move and laid an ambush for him. As they fought their way through the Chetniks, Tito pointed out to one of the British observers:
"Here is an example of Mikhailovich fighting the invaders."
For the next four weeks the Partisan army battled its way northward. Line after line was frantically formed by the Germans to halt the retreat — a retreat which again and again turned into a counter-attack, and each time Marshal Tito broke through. He lost men; his casualties during the defense of Piva and the four-week march were four thousand, but he exacted a toll of twelve thousand from the Germans.
The Germans took advantage of the country, the narrow passes, the mountains. They established hundreds of machine-gun nests on rocky heights, but the Partisans clawed their way up in the darkness. They took the machine guns with their bare hands and knives, silently leaping out of the night, turning the hot guns on the defenders. During that battle a German correspondent reported that the Partisans fought, not like men, but like wild beasts, unafraid of death, appearing suddenly out of the night, attacking and quickly withdrawing.
At that time, two German divisions were employed against the Allies in Sicily; seven German divisions were being cut to ribbons by Tito's Partisans.
At the end of that march, in Bosnia, Tito joined forces with the other large Partisan army. Together they turned on the Germans and Italians and launched a fierce counter-attack. This time it was successful — the Germans were sent reeling back, their proud Wermacht cut to pieces, and the free Yugoslav radio was able to announce to the world in July, 1943: "All of Bosnia has been liberated from the invader."
"Annihilated" Partisans Slaughter Nazis
It is almost impossible to describe the condition of Yugoslavia in that summer of 1943. Three times battling armies had fought their way up and across the breadth of the land. A road of graves marked where the armies had marched and fought. Half of the country lay desolate — villages abandoned, burned to the ground, leveled by dive bombers. Thousands of Yugoslavs had been murdered by the Germans and Italians — how many thousands no one knew. Murder had become the fascist sport.
On the other hand, during the past summer a wave of hope and joy swept through the country. The whole centre of the land had been liberated. A great German and Italian army had been decisively defeated. A wave of freedom touched south Slavs everywhere in the Balkans.
The first evidence of this was a new outbreak of sabotage. Everywhere in Yugoslavia men and women and even children rose against the invader. The Germans and Italians turned the cities they still held into armed fortresses, in some cases surrounding them with a wall of barbed wire. German trains were derailed, blown up. When the Germans tried defensive methods, such as preceding their trains with a string of sand-carrying gondolas, the Partisans set relays of mines.
During this time, Partisan strength increased immensely. Whole brigades deserted from Mikhailovich's waning army. Recruits poured in by the hundreds, from the hills, from the cities, from the woods. German and Italian prisoners joined forces with the Partisans, to fight Fascism. German anti-Nazis, escaping across the Austrian frontier, offered to fight in Partisan ranks against Hitlerism. A whole company was formed of German prisoners and two other companies were formed by Austrian anti-Nazis.
While British and American newspapers told their readers that Mikhailovich's army numbered 250,000 men, it had actually shrunk to less than ten thousand. Radio Berlin screamed to the world that the Yugoslav Partisans had been annihilated, while the Partisans, holding the whole of Bosnia, went about the work of reconstruction.